President Xi Jinping wants the Chinese to empty their plates

Eat your plate empty. With those simple but urgent words, party leader Xi Jinping hopes to unleash a revolution that should put an end to food waste in his country. Annually, some 17 to 18 million tons of food would be thrown away in China.

“Don’t order too much, order just enough” is the message on CCTV, an important mouthpiece of the Communist Party. Social media platforms such as Douyin, Tiktok’s sister company, must also join in with the movement of the people. The company said earlier to ‘take Xi’s call to heart’ and demands that ‘food waste during live streaming be eliminated’, something it says it will ‘actively monitor’.

On Weibo, China’s Twitter, food-your-plate empty-challenges are hunted down, in which firefighters and military personnel eat their plate to the last grain of rice.

“We’ve seen it,” says a restaurant visitor at Haidilao, one of the largest hotpot chains in the country. “All that waste is indeed a shame, we don’t take part in it.”

Full tables play an important role in a culture where “have you already eaten” is one of the most frequently asked questions. That was not always obvious. Older Chinese can still remember the Great Jump Forward. Former party chairman Mao Zedong wanted to industrialize, but pushed the country into the abyss at the end of the 1950s.

It is estimated that the subsequent famine killed tens of millions of Chinese people. After that, food rations remained the order of the day; meat was a luxury product for a long time.

Food security

The period counts as an open wound that is not or hardly talked about in public. However, notions such as food security are being put in the spotlight.

“They hoe the weeds, their sweat drips on the floor. It’s hard work for every grain of rice.” They’re phrases from a poem most Chinese people get to know before primary school. The poem, titled Have sympathy for the farmers, mentions the hard labor needed to fill the plates. The poem is said to originate from the Tang Dynasty, around the 8th century of our era.

Half portions

A message that resonates with Haidilao, the hotpot restaurant. For a long time now, attempts have been made to tame the frenzy among customers, says restaurant manager Xu Jianli. Customers are urged not to serve too many dishes.

The latest success is the introduction of half portions. “This means that customers can still put many different dishes on the table, but less needs to be thrown away,” says Xu. “They cost exactly half a full portion. So you can always order more for the same price.”

Speculations about food shortages

Party boss Xi already came up with an anti-food waste campaign in 2013, just after he took office. However, it was mainly intended to put an end to the extravagant spending patterns of party members and officials. The current campaign is broader than that, and directly targets all 1.4 billion Chinese. Its timing fuels speculation about possible imminent food shortages.

Food prices in July were about 10 percent higher than in the same period last year. Pork, in particular, has become considerably more expensive as a result of swine fever and a sharply reduced pig herd. There is also speculation about disappointing harvests as a result of large-scale flooding. Delivery problems around corona are also mentioned. According to the authorities, none of this is true and they can only do so to improve efficiency. According to figures reported by CCTV, some 30 to 50 million people a year could eat from the total waste mountain.